Review: Bad News for Outlaws - Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Bad News for Outlaws

by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Ages 6-10

32 pages

Carolrhoda Books, November 2009

Okay, I admit it.  My father hooked me on westerns when I was a little kid.  One of my very favorite movies of all time is Silverado.  The sense of adventure, the open prairie, the black and white morality all appealed to my childhood brain -- and now, of course, it's too late.  It's embedded in my psyche.

But even if you don't care much for westerns, or if you have (heresy!) never seen Silverado, Bad News for Outlaws is a smashing success.  It begins with a strong hook.  I defy any child to resist the power of Bass Reeves capturing the criminal Jim Webb:
Webb couldn't outrun a horse.  And he knew he'd hang for sure this time.  In a last-ditch effort to escape, Webb stopped in his tracks, turned, and let loose with his rifle.
The rest of Reeves' story is told chronologically, with one-page episodes of each part of his life, from the slavery of his youth to becoming a Deputy U.S. Marshal.  The focus is on his time capturing criminals.  The text is scattered with fascinating facts, anecdotes and quotes about Reeves.

One of the distinguishing features of this biography is the quality of Bass' character.  He was an exemplary shot, but killed very few men in his lifetime.  A touching segment tells how Reeves was required to arrest his own son, who'd killed his cheating wife.

The back matter is rich with additional detail, including a glossary of "Western Words," a timeline of Reeves' life, books and web sites for further reading, more about Indian Territory and Judge Isaac Parker, who hired Reeves, a selected bibliography and an author's note.

The illustrations by R. Gregory Christie are colorful and rich paintings, with a thick line and impressionistic style.  You can read an interview with him at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast here.

When judging biographies for sharing with my classes, I always go back to Judy Freeman's 10 biographical "ingredients" in her recipe for Biography Hash.  Not all biographies need to have all ten, but it sure helps -- and this one does.  I can predict some serious hash-making next week!

Winner of the 2010 Coretta Scott King Award.

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